Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed coronavirus vaccine equity and his commitment to the continual modernization of the Greek economy in an online conference called “Europe 2021” on Thursday.
The conference, which was organized by the German newspapers Der Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit and Handelsblatt as well as the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, was wide-ranging in its topics, also touching on Greek-Turkish relations and the monies received by Greece from the EU for pandemic relief.
“Despite the pandemic, the impetus for reform has never stopped,” the Greek PM noted in his remarks on the country’s business infrastructure. “We intend to use the 32 billion in total – 19 billion in grants and 13 billion in loans – in order to boost the transformation of the Greek economy.”
Pandemic was opportunity to “reshape the web of the Greek state”
Mitsotakis reiterated that “we used the pandemic as an opportunity to offer a range of digital services to citizens. Through digital transformation, we are reshaping the web of the Greek state.” He stated that “we have four main priorities regarding the Recovery Fund: Green transition, digital transformation, emphasis on private investment and great emphasis on qualifications, skills, education and training.”
The conference revolved around many issues, including the response to the pandemic, the vaccination plan, the digitization of the state, tourism recovery, “green” development and the often-thorny relations between Greece and Turkey.
Regarding the coronavirus vaccine issue, and the idea of a vaccination certificate, Mitsotakis said that “it is very important – especially for small and medium-sized countries – that the EU negotiates as a whole and makes a fully-proportional distribution (of vaccines) based on the population of each country.
“No divisions between big and small countries, rich and poor. This is an important step towards European solidarity,” he cautioned. “We want people to be able to travel this summer. We want the Germans to be able to come to Greece. That is why I was the first European leader to call for a debate on what we call the European Vaccination Certificate.
“This is not a permit to travel, of course, but it will make travel much easier,” he explained.
“We hope for a constructive relationship”
Regarding not only Euro-Turkish relations but also Turkish behavior in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greek Prime Minister noted that “there are two options. We hope for a constructive relationship, but if things do not move in the right direction, there must be consequences on the part of the EU for Turkey.
“It is encouraging that there has been an improvement in the situation in the last month since the exploratory contacts began, but I am not naive,” Mitsotakis warned. “I want to see consistency in this behavior on the part of Turkey.”
The discussion was moderated by Nicole Bastian, head of the international news section of the Handelsblatt newspaper, and was attended by Thomas Enders, chairman of the German Foreign Policy Council and former Airbus CEO. The Handelsblatt correspondent in Athens, Gerd Höhler, who has been in our country since 1979, also asked questions of the Prime Minister.
32 billion-euro recovery fund will help redesign Greek economy
Bastian recalled that Mitsotakis had taken office just a year and a half ago. He started out with the ambition to lead the Greek economy to sustainable development. But the Covid crisis occurred and last year was disastrous for the Greek economy, with its GDP shrinking by more than 10% and the deficit was more than 6%.
With Brussels authorizing the expenditure of 32 billion euros as part of the European Recovery Fund, the Greek PM has said that this is an excellent opportunity for the transformation of the Greek economy.
Commenting on its potential for such growth, the Greek leader stated “All European countries have been significantly affected by Covid and I would like to point out that in terms of the medical aspect of the pandemic, Greece did better than most European countries, something that benefited our brand as a whole.
“We entered this pandemic with an underfunded health system but took action in time,” he noted. “We communicated our message very clearly and our performance was better than in most European countries. And at the same time, we used the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen our health system. I literally just returned a few minutes ago from one of our orthopedic hospitals where we put into service 30 new ICU beds.”
Regarding the business climate in the country, Mitsotakis painted a rosy picture of the future, stating that “Microsoft decided, after conducting a thorough comparative study for many countries, to install three large data centers in Greece. These are contributions that will stay with us after the pandemic.
Streamlining Greek bureaucracy and attracting major development
“As far as the economy is concerned, I would like to point out that – although we have spent most of our time in Covid we have also faced international crises such as immigration – the impetus for reform has never stopped. The Greek economy was doing extremely well before the outbreak of the pandemic and I believe that we will do extremely well when we leave it behind.
“For this to happen,” he stated, however, “some specifications must be met. The first is to continue to implement the necessary reforms that will strengthen our competitiveness. For example, the simplification of the licensing process, in order to facilitate international companies to operate in Greece. Even during the pandemic, important announcements were made regarding large foreign direct investments in the country.
“Volkswagen has announced a very important project aimed at transforming one of our islands into a model of green mobility, a model of sustainable transformation for the islands. RWE is ready to invest in the renewable energy sector.
“Transformation of the Greek economy”
“All these initiatives took place during the pandemic, as there is faith in the long-term prospects of the Greek economy. And certainly, in addition to those, as you pointed out, we now have the Recovery Fund that we negotiated in Brussels last July. This is a key change in Europe’s approach to being able to borrow at the European level and channel grants to Member States.
“We have presented in Brussels the program that concerns our country for Recovery and Durability. We intend to use these funds, a total of 32 billion – 19 billion in grants and 13 billion in loans – in order to boost the transformation of the Greek economy,” Mitsotakis declared.
The Greek leader went on to state that there are four key priorities for the Recovery Fund: “Green transition, digital transformation, emphasis on private investment and strong emphasis on qualifications, skills, education and training.
Mitsotakis went on to give the examples of building modernization and energy efficiency programs, which he says will take advantage of Greek construction materials and labor, with the relevant projects in this area amounting to over 3 billion euros.
Digital transformation of the Greek state
“A second very important program that we have already started to implement during the pandemic is the digital transformation of the Greek state,” Mitsotakis added. “As you know, the Greek state was and to a large extent remains highly bureaucratic. We used the pandemic as an opportunity to offer a range of digital services to citizens.
“Through digital transformation, we are reshaping the web of the Greek state,” he said. The country’s vaccination registration program, he explained, is purely digital, with the state sending an sms to the patient. “They make their appointment electronically and the process goes smoothly,” he noted.
“In fact,” he added, “the Greeks have been surprised by the fact that the state is able to function in such a modern way. Digital transformation is very important to us.
Most coal-burning electrical plants out of operation by 2023
We are also moving away from fossil fuels for electricity generation, Mitsotakis added, mentioning that Greece “has made the courageous decision to stop generating electricity through coal by 2028 at the latest. By 2023, virtually all units using lignite will be out of operation.”
Regarding the decision for the issuance of European debt by the European Commission and whether this is a precursor to further developments, Mitsotakis stated:
“We issue European bonds to finance these programs, so I think this is a very important step. It is not just a step in the right direction, it is a big step,” he noted.
“We all realized that in this crisis, unique in the depths of an entire generation, we have to increase spending, we have to circumvent some fiscal rules, we probably have to be willing to accept higher debt. And the ECB has helped in this direction, providing great – almost inexhaustible – liquidity.,” he explained.
“Obviously at some point we will have to return to basic fiscal rules,” Mitsotakis admitted.
Recovery Fund an opportunity to bridge gap between rich, poor European countries
However, he added, “the Recovery Fund is not only about expenditure but also investment, it is about implementing transformations, it is about identifying weaknesses that countries have, to make changes and become more competitive. And the more competitive the countries become, the more unified our fiscal policy can be, the smaller the gap between rich and poor countries, between those who perform well and those who do not.
“So this is really an opportunity to bridge the gap between European countries,” the Greek leader explained. “Undoubtedly it is an opportunity for Greece to fill the gap (which separates it from its partners). We do not intend to miss this opportunity and we are very happy, based on what we know, that our plan was very well received in Brussels. It gives us the courage to move in the right direction and the funds will be disbursed in time to support a – I believe – very dynamic recovery after the pandemic.”
Asked how he would characterize Greek-German relations at the present time, Mitsotakis responded: “I think the relationship has improved significantly. It was a difficult relationship during the crisis. No doubt about it.
Greece and German must forge “constructive relationship”
“But I believe that it can be further improved and that the narrative needs to change,” he clarified. “I think we should talk about projects of common interest. A debtor-creditor relationship should no longer unite us. We need to have a constructive relationship, a relationship that is mutually beneficial when we talk about the economic aspects of that relationship.
The Greek leader then touched on a sensitive topic which has reared its head during the past year, with the appearance of Germany refusing to stand up for fellow EU member Greece after a number of incursions in the Meditteranean.
The foreign policy aspect of Greek-German relations, Mitsotakis stated, “is clearly more complicated. And I will be completely honest about that.
“A part of the citizens in Greece believe that Germany did not support us enough in our disputes with Turkey. I am well aware that the Chancellor played a very constructive role in her attempt to mediate. I am glad that the relationship (with Turkey) has improved, but we always seek European solidarity from all countries when we defend what we consider to be the right position.”
The Prime Minister concluded his remarks at the conference by stating “And I think we are right to claim a solution to one of our key differences with Turkey, which is the delimitation of our maritime zones, under international law.”